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What’s the Problem: Your Brand Strategy or Your Marketing Tactics?

Your latest campaign isn’t driving the velocity you expected. Instead of growing your sales, the new flavor you’ve introduced is cannibalizing your legacy product. Your leading retail outlet is preparing to launch a private label version of your offering.

If your food or beverage brand is facing headwinds, do you know if the problem is your marketing tactics? Or your brand strategy?

To find a fix, you need to understand the cause.

Identifying Tactical Problems & Fixes

If your sales and marketing teams are throwing a bunch of “stuff” against the wall to see what sticks, it can be difficult to isolate what’s working and what’s not.

Let’s look at some common problems that arise from sales and marketing tactical misfires:

  • Lack of awareness — you struggle to reach beyond your core audience of longtime fans; while they’re loyal buyers, they aren’t going to grow your bottom line.
  • Emphasis on product attributes — your messaging leads with features and benefits, not who, what, and why you exist. You’re on your way to becoming a commodity if you don’t retool your consumer communication.
  • Product cannibalization — your new flavors, sizes, or packs are eating away at your strongest offerings. When you emphasize attributes, not mission, you’re likely to grab consumers’ attention only with something shiny and new.
  • Placement and pricing friction — your products only move when on deal. Again, if your marketing doesn’t shout your brand’s mission from the rooftops, the consumer thinks, “well, this is a cheap option this week” instead of, “I need this brand in my life.”

To address a lack of consumer awareness, you might start with research (a competitive audit, category audit, and audience analysis) and then evaluate and refine your messaging based upon those insights.

If a marketing review reveals that your messaging is overly focused on your products’ attributes (Low carb! Now in vanilla!), then you need to retool your communication to explain your features and benefits through the lens of the brand. Let the brand’s WHY lead the dialog.

When you have a product cannibalization problem, the tactical fix is pretty straightforward: Develop the discipline to say no. Don’t make more varieties just because you can. Use consumer research, flavor trends, and retailer insights to anticipate consumer demands beyond just a copycat line extension.

Finally, if you’re facing pressure on pricing and placement, then leverage your consumer insights to help your retail partners understand that your audience is their audience. Knowing who your consumer is and how the brand fits into their lives will change the conversation about placement and channel strategy.

Brand Strategy Problems & Solutions

While product-specific data might reveal issues with your sales and marketing tactics, broader insights related to your consumer base and your performance against your competitive set are flashing red lights that you have a brand strategy problem.

We’ll dig into these warning signs in a couple of different business categories, and look at some potential strategic fixes.

AUDIENCE

Key indicators:

  • Brand erosion (loss of brand relevance)
  • Loss of key, long-time loyalist consumers
  • Lack of new audience cohorts
  • Misunderstanding among your internal team of what matters to your consumers

Strategic fixes:

In short, there’s a disconnect between your brand and your customers, one that goes both ways. Your team doesn’t understand who they are (or who they could be) or what they need. They, in turn, don’t get (or have forgotten) what you stand for.

Chances are, your company is sleeping on consumer data, ignoring it, discounting it, or thinking the brand is immune to changing consumer preferences. So research is the place to start fixing an audience strategy problem.

First, you need to look backward to understand the audience you have and how you got them, looking at SPINS data, syndicated research, or a Usage and Attitude Study.

Second, you need to look forward to identify an untapped group that doesn’t yet know they need your brand in their world. Decide who you want to reach out to, who you have a right to talk to, who you want to invite into the group — and then find ways to create linkage to them.

Remember: Your brand doesn’t have to be for everyone. If you’re an undifferentiated brand, you need millions of people to care. If you’re a brand with a purpose, you need a focused group of fans, both current and future, to care.

Always, your capital-B Brand — the promise you make and the way you keep it — drives decisions about who you’re inviting into the tribe. Defining a new audience should not change why you exist; why you exist should illuminate the new audience.

RETAIL ENVIRONMENT

Key indicators:

  • You have unhappy retail customers
  • Low velocity means category managers are days away from dropping your brand
  • Your business is not solving your retailer partners’ main problems
  • New competition is taking significant market share
  • You compete on price rather than value
  • You have low profit margins
  • You’re seeing stagnant ACV (Annual Case Volume) in key accounts

Strategic fixes:

Your salespeople are charismatic folks who could sell water to a drowning person. But they need more than personality; they need tools and language to explain why your brand exists and how it fits into the retailer’s universe. Just as you work to win your consumer’s affection, you need to woo your retail partners.

This retail relationship-building effort involves knowing your existing audience and working to expand it. (See above.) Retailers want to see that you’re constantly driving shoppers to their shelves to find your products: More fans for you equals more business for them. Emphasize, too, your brand’s mission and its power to attract devoted fans who’ll seek you out and pay a premium.

Armed with data and brand strategy, your sales team can build partnerships with retailers based on the goal of shared success. When you work as equals, you’ll face less price pressure, threat of discontinuation, or dictation of shelf placement.

INNOVATION

Key indicators:

  • Competitors’ products or services are no different from yours
  • Your product offering is outdated and no longer desirable
  • You’re behind in understanding new industry standards, consumer preferences, and competitive moves

Strategic fixes:

Throwing new products on retail shelves simply in response to trends or competitive moves is a recipe for becoming a commodity — because every other brand can make those same products. Pumpkin spice is not a brand strategy, it’s an opportunistic product play that may get you a spike in November but is not sustainable.

When you anchor R&D to your brand strategy, you’ll make things that only you can make. Things that are so attuned to your fan base’s needs that they can’t say no.

Consider the promise your brand makes and and how you keep it: What items in your current lineup deliver on that promise? Are there outages or opportunities that you’re not serving? Where do you have permission from your audience to introduce something new? That’s the target area for innovation.

MISSION

Key indicators:

  • You’ve lost track of (or never identified) your brand’s mission: why it exists beyond just making a product
  • You have difficulty finding and keeping talent
  • Your product offering doesn’t match its promise

Strategic fixes:

Really, there’s only one thing to do if the brand does not stand on a strong, defensible mission: Go to Chapter 1 of our book Beloved & Dominant Brands and do all the homework.

Without a mission, you shouldn’t be innovating. Without a mission, you’re selling to the masses instead of singing with the choir. Your competitive advantage isn’t your product features and attributes, it’s the flag you’ve planted in the sand.

Without a brand strategy built on a singular mission, the savviest marketing plan and the most persuasive sales team won’t move the needle.If your brand is struggling with strategy, that’s our superpower. Let’s talk about what you need.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Good Creative Lasts a Moment. Great Strategy Lasts for Years.

I get it: You’re in a hurry. There’s a deadline, perhaps a category review with your dominant retail partner. Or maybe someone new in your organization wants to put their stamp on the product. So you want a new packaging design for your food and beverage product, and you want it now.

A new package or identity is exhilarating. It can make a splash in the market. But it’s oh so temporary. If your creative isn’t doing the heavy lifting of translating your brand strategy, you aren’t winning.

The secret to great packaging and identity is strategy, not beautiful design. Strategy and creative execution are inextricably linked.

Great creative without great strategy is wallpaper that will be wildly outdated in 18 months. Great strategy without great creative is a binder that sits on your conference room shelf.

Skip the strategy part and go straight to playing with typography and color, and someone else in your category will make the same moves within about six months. So you’ll have to redesign all over again.

Unless you do the strategy work first.

Why Brand Strategy Should Lead Brand Creative

Brand Strategy as a Foundation for Creative

In the world of consumer goods, great design is table stakes. But what makes creative last is a strategy that looks beyond your management team’s understanding of the universe. A brilliant brand strategy allows you to ignore what your competitors are doing (moves that often inspire a we-gotta-do-this-NOW approach to redesign) and build a deep and powerful relationship between your brand and your audience.

Strategy, of course, isn’t just a marketing activity. All roads lead back to your WHY: your brand’s unique point of view and the promises you make. It’s a risk-management and resource-management philosophy. Strategy drives every decision your organization makes: the products you launch, the channels you sell through, the audience you attract, the opportunities you don’t pursue. And yes, the way you package and present your products.

The output of strategy isn’t killer creative. Rather, it’s a defined framework for making decisions, including creative. Brand strategy is creative’s superhero suit—it repels competitors, fends off trends, flashes a signal that summons fans. It allows you to make the right moves that will disrupt your category and remain a force for 5 years or more.

This is the reason we audit a client’s brand positioning against the category and all adjacencies — before we start any design work.

Sometimes, this takes a bit of convincing. Prospective clients who come to our firm for a packaging design makeover may want to skip the strategy — perhaps because they don’t understand its importance and value, or they have limited time or money (or think they do). We explain that taking 8 to 10 weeks to do it right means they won’t have to redo the design in 12 months.

So if you think you need packaging, how do you know you need strategy?

· If something is broken but you don’t quite know what it is

· If you sense that your brand’s relevance is eroding and your sales are trailing off (this is not something packaging alone can fix)

· If you’re pretty confident that you know your audience well (you may know your current people, but who are you not selling to that wants your product?)

· If your sales trajectory is inconsistent with your competitors’ and you aren’t sure why

· If redesigning is just a thing you do every X years

Design Follows, It Doesn’t Lead

Some marketers believe that doing the design work will answer the bigger questions, that they’ll turn up the strategic stuff as they go through the design process. But letting design lead the initiative is a lousy move because the brand team will get emotionally invested in visuals before they get invested in the strategy.

The discipline of package design will never illuminate a new audience or new product or channel strategy or pricing structure; those are all things that only brand strategy can do.

Repeat after me: Creative is always the output of strategy. They’re always done sequentially, not in tandem.

Which isn’t to say that your design team shouldn’t be involved in the strategic work. Inviting senior creative people to the table is a real time-saver. (And if you’re up against a deadline, a pretty great reason to make time for strategy.) When you bring senior creative people in to ride shotgun on strategy, they can get to the solve in just a round or two of ideation. It brings alignment and prevents burnout … “We’re on Round 37!” You’ve created a North Star that provides guardrails for design exploration, focuses feedback, and drives decision-making.

Early in my career, I was guilty of making really beautiful stuff that was so transformative that it pointed my clients’ business in a new direction … and then I came to understand that beautiful stuff doesn’t really cash the check. So our team’s work always starts with our competitive audit – a benchmarking exercise that informs brand strategy and identifies opportunity. Armed with that insight, leaders can make really bold moves that only your brand can make. Including packaging design that doesn’t copy what’s already on the shelf — but transforms the shelf.Ready for a smarter approach to your brand’s creative expression? Let’s have a conversation.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Becoming a Green Company: 4 Examples to Guide the Way

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing a series of articles about sustainability for food and beverage brands … moving from relatively low-stakes/low-impact (packaging) to mid-stakes/mid-impact (brand mission) and now to high-stakes/high-impact (corporate environmental responsibility). Product to brand to company.

4 Sustainable Brands to Inspire Your Company to Become Green

This is part of a series of articles we’ve published on sustainability for food and beverage brands.

The Road to Sustainable Packaging is Long. Start with These 5 Steps.

How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

If you’re just starting as an organization down the path to environmental sustainability, it may seem impossible to consider making every. single. aspect. of your business operate with environmental consequences in mind.

But it is possible. And, I’d argue, imperative.

Taking a corporate-level environmental stance means it’s not just your packaging that is quote-unquote recyclable. It’s not just your brand on the mission. It’s every business unit, every employee, every decision. Until a sustainability mindset is part of your organizational DNA. In fact, it may not even be something you actively market to consumers. It just is.

(If you need to better understand the magnitude and breadth of the materials economy, I recommend watching the short documentary “The Story of Stuff” and the other resources from the Story of Stuff Project.)

What does this kind of commitment look like? Patagonia, the outdoor outfitter that’s “in business to save our home planet” is a common avatar for corporate environmental stewardship. But there are other companies in other categories — outside food and beverage — that CPG brands can look to for inspiration. Here are 4 mini case studies — including one “what not to do” example from our own food & beverage industry.

1) FLOR

When you’ve finished reading this, go watch the TED Talk by Interface-FLOR founder/CEO Ray Anderson. Behind the genteel Southern drawl is a steely commitment to zero waste. An industrial designer by training, Anderson founded a company to manufacture commercial carpet tiles in the 1970s. Then, in the 1990s, he happened upon Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce,” which opened his eyes to the role that business and industry play in wrecking the environment — and the role they must play in healing it.

Anderson recognized the false choice between environment and economics. Then he asked, “Why not us?”

He set out to transform a petroleum-intensive company to take as little from the earth as possible and only what the planet could regenerate—not a single drop of fresh oil—and do no harm to the biosphere.

The “take-make-waste” industrial ecosystem is extractive and linear; Anderson aimed for renewable and circular. From manufacturing and sourcing overhauls to creating a reverse logistics system through which customers could return used carpet tiles for recycling, Interface-FLOR proved the business case for environmental stewardship. Twelve years into the initiative, in 2009, Anderson reported that costs were down, sales were up by two-thirds, profitability had doubled, and cost savings had paid for all the expenses of the transformation. FLOR’s products were better than ever, thanks to a culture of innovation. Employees were galvanized around the shared purpose. And, he noted, no marketing campaign at any price could have yielded the marketplace goodwill that the company’s mission had generated.

Visit the website for FLOR (the company’s consumer division) and you’ll see high-style carpeting made for modern homes. FLOR leads with design; its minimal carbon footprint is a secondary selling point.

2) Alcoa

When Paul O’Neill took over the aluminum manufacturer in 1987, the company was tanking. It had a poor reputation for product quality, underpinned by a litany of serious employee safety problems. O’Neill spent time investigating how the company operated and asked loads of questions. Rather than focusing on products or customers, his turnaround plan focused on safety. The board of directors, shareholders, and fellow C-suiters questioned how safety would translate to sales and improved margin.

O’Neill remained committed. Across the company, new safety policies were put in place. The culture shifted as employees realized that the CEO was invested in them. They started caring about their work and their fellow employees. Productivity went up. When there was an error, O’Neill accepted personal responsibility, took action, and set an example.

By the end of his tenure in 1999, just under a decade later, Alcoa’s market value had increased from $3 billion to more than $27 billion. O’Neill found a value that the greater company could get behind, and he never wavered. Business case studies call this a “keystone habit.”

While Alcoa’s mission was safety-minded rather than planet-centered, the keystone habit offers a powerful model. Find a value that’s tangible and ownable — the more specific you can be, the better. Put your neck on the block, do what you say you’re going to do, and stay the course even when it’s difficult or costly.

3) Alden’s Organic Ice Cream

Alden’s was a client of ours; they came to us as a regional operation in the Northwest with a dream of expanding. Ice cream — organic at that — what’s not to love? But the company struggled with low brand recognition.

Their brand position was earnest and earthy, overly serious in the way that some better-for-you brands can be. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain the value of organic ingredients in a treat like ice cream.

As we dug into the 360° Brand Development process, we discovered a single value woven into the business that virtually nobody inside or outside the company knew about.

Alden’s sources organic milk from a co-op of 40 family farmers. And so, we found the “keystone habit” — to protect the integrity and financial sustainability of those family farmers. Only the people in procurement really knew about this commitment and what it meant to the farmers.

We created a new mission for the company: “supporting family farms.” We broke down internal silos and made sure that everyone in the company, from the workers on the production line to the financial analysts to the marketers, knew about the mission. It wasn’t just about selling ice cream. It was about honoring and preserving the livelihoods of farmers who followed sustainable, organic practices. That became the company’s flag in the ground.

As with FLOR, the corporate commitment to sustaining farmers paid off: In just 24 months, this small NW regional brand became America’s best-selling organic ice cream.

4) Oatly

Here’s our “what not to do” example. Companies that adopt strong pro-environment positions don’t have to tout their green chops in marketing campaigns. FLOR doesn’t lead with it. But woe be to the company that does make sustainability a marketing platform … and then fails to back it up in business practices.

Oatly has lately landed in hot water, with environmental activists calling for a boycott of the company’s oat beverage products. The Swedish company is built on the promise of radically changing the food system in order to tackle humankind’s greatest challenge: climate change. Oatly’s marketing and product platforms are anchored in making it cool to be vegan — they sell upcycled clothing with the brand logo, and adopt a slang-y millennial brand voice and illustration style.

The company’s financing, though, raises eyebrows. In 2020, it sold a 10 percent stake to Blackstone, a private equity group that has come under fire previously for allegations that it’s involved in businesses that contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon. It’s a complex issue (a big chunk of that same financing deal came from “green” bank loans that come with sustainability requirements). Oatly issued a “yeah, but” statement that said, basically, “Yeah we accepted this potentially questionable financing, but at least the money is going to green projects instead of to fossil fuels or something else that’s bad for the planet.”

A company leader was quoted as saying: “We know some people may see this as unexpected, but it was very purposeful. We’re at a stage where we need to scale up. Scale requires investment and big investment. If we’re able to change mainstream capital into greener projects, we will start to see a new level of change.”

The lesson here is that companies need to be steadfast in their commitment to sustainability, always and in every way, not just when it’s convenient.

It Must Be Possible

Your company has a large environmental footprint beyond product packaging. To become a truly green company, it should be ready to review every part of the business. This is not a brand exercise. It’s not a marketing initiative.

When decision making is siloed throughout an organization, all those decisions will focus on the performance of the individual business unit. Manufacturing for speed and efficiency may save costs, but it increases waste. Sourcing cheap paperboard may save budgets, but it increases forest usage. True sustainability requires system thinking.

Those costs eventually get passed along. To the consumer, in higher prices. Or to the environment, in terms of climate change and biosphere degradation. Which do we prioritize?

As Anderson notes in his TED Talk, if something exists, it must be possible. And if it’s possible for one company, than it must be possible for every company.
Where are you on the path to sustainability? Whether you’re looking at packaging, reframing your brand mission, or evaluating every aspect of your corporate operation, we can help you take the right next steps. Let’s start a conversation.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

An article we published recently noted that food and beverage brands often tout their sustainability and package their products in “recyclable” materials. In the real world, though, most food and beverage packaging is not actually recyclable in any practical sense. And even if it were, we’ve put the burden of dealing with all of this plastic and paperboard and film on the consumer.

We’ve made it so easy for people to buy our products. Shouldn’t we also make it easy for them to dispose of the stuff our products are wrapped or boxed or bottled in?

That article shared five practical steps brand leaders can take to reduce their environmental footprint, focusing on their packaging.

But of course, there’s much more to sustainability than packaging.

So how can brands create an authentic sustainability platform without greenwashing or faking it? How can they make meaningful, systemic changes, and how do they present that position to their audience?

Consumers Demand Sustainability

First, understand that consumers are driving corporate interest in sustainable practices. Take a look at the trends:

More than 9 million people globally belong to the Freecycle Network, which aims to trade and reuse goods instead of purchasing.

Peer-to-peer marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace allow consumers to buy and sell used items directly from one another.

Sites like Poshmark, Thred Up, and Rent the Runway allow fashionistas to buy or rent pre-worn clothing, some of it from high-end labels.

As a marketer, you also know that consumers are incredibly fickle. And sometimes irrational. They love the idea of buying less and reusing more, but they’re still buying a ton of stuff. They expect environmental responsibility even as they buy single-serve products with excessive packaging just because they’re more convenient. They want brands to be do-gooders, but they balk at paying a premium for that position.

So what is a mission-driven, better-for-you food or beverage brand to do?

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Food & Beverage Brand

Do It Because It’s Right

We advise our food and beverage clients to move in a sustainable direction not because it’s trendy or because it builds their cred on social media — but because it’s the right thing to do. Every brand is different, and that means they have different needs and bring different strengths to a sustainability story.

For every “environmental hero” brand — Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics, and Seventh Generation are brands anchored in environmental activism — there are thousands more that are starting to work sustainability into their platform. This shift in focus risks greenwashing, and unless you do it in a way that’s authentic and logical for your brand, consumers will sniff that out in a hot minute.

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Brand

So how can brands add an environmental position in a legit way?

1) Understand where you are today. Establish an internal working group tasked with defining your brand’s environmental footprint across business units: ingredient sourcing, production, packaging, distribution, retail, end-of-life, all of it. Examine not just environmental issues but also human ones: wages, safety, etc. Then begin to tackle reducing waste and improving practices wherever you can.

2) Anchor environmental commitment in your capital-B Brand. We define Brand as the promises you make and the way you keep them. Your organization must decide on your brand promise and the role that sustainability plays in it. Some brands lead with sustainability and don’t have other values; others focus on other issues like equality or health and then figure out how to bolt sustainability onto that.

To make your environmental position externally legitimate and internally “sticky” it must flow logically from your brand promise. It doesn’t have to be your only mission, but it shouldn’t be one of many missions. Don’t try to be a better-for-you, organic, shade-grown, equality-minded, sugar-free, donate-a-product-for-every-one-purchased, environmental warrior brand; consumers will struggle to understand an overly complex brand position.

We call this concept being a “citizen brand” — if your brand exists as a citizen of the world, then it has to behave admirably in all respects. Your environmentalism doesn’t have to be the lead horse, but it’s part of your value system to do the right thing.

3) Infuse sustainability throughout your operations. When this effort is part of the brand’s core belief system, it informs every aspect of your business. And you recruit, train, promote, and fire employees based on those values. That’s how you make sustainability matter deeply to the entire organization.

Not every brand has the discipline to do what Patagonia did – to review every single business activity in every single unit so that every product has a minimal impact on the environment. But if your brand is committed to sustainability, you should behave accordingly in all aspects of the business, not just when consumers are watching.

One way to do this is to apply for B Corp status. Overseen by the nonprofit B Lab, the B Corp movement aims to change the global economic system to the benefit of people and planet. (We’ve gone through this process ourselves to achieve B Corp certification.) The standards are rigorous, and there are free tools companies can use to assess their impact. This alone is a helpful exercise.

4) Craft your sustainability story internally and externally. When a plan to reduce your environmental footprint is baked into your mission, it should become easy to authentically communicate that to your employees and fans.

Begin with internal messaging: encourage people to measure twice and cut once, to think before they act, to choose suppliers carefully, to decide whether we need an office copier. Training and nurturing the value across the organization will ground every decision in your brand values. That will still have a huge impact even if you can’t radically change your packaging tomorrow.

Then you start the dialog with consumers so they know you have a position, you recognize it’s a challenge, and you’re taking steps to make it better.

At the end of the day, brands have to become more sustainability-minded. Humanity is up against looming deadlines in terms of climate change and natural resource depletion. We can’t afford to delay.

Ready to start on the sustainability path, or move farther along? We’re here to help.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Food & Beverage Brands: Stop Chasing Your Competitors

Imagine walking through a fully stocked grocery store where your food or beverage brand’s products are neatly and abundantly shelved among your category. You scan your competitors’ products, also neatly and abundantly displayed. Do you:

  1. Pull out your smartphone and make a voice memo listing all the ingredients and flavor profiles you need to get your product innovation team working on — stat!
  2. Move along with a certain swagger in your step, confident that your brand’s favored status among your customer base is enough to keep your sales velocity at a robust pace. 

(If you’ve been reading our stuff for a while, you know which answer is the correct one, right?)

The Perils of Brand Parity

So many brand leaders are just trying to keep up with the Joneses. Lately, we’ve been spending a lot of time with clients who are checking their neighbor’s paper and navel gazing, relying on what everyone else is doing and their own internal biases to make decisions. And all of those moves result in parity.

Brands that endlessly focus on their category peers are relegated to competing on price or on differences that either cannot be seen by consumers or don’t really matter because they don’t build velocity. It’s hard to stand out in a world of features and benefits. Faced with a shelf full of comparable chocolate-flavored energy bars, the consumer will choose on any number of easily copied features: flavor or package or price. Play the features and benefits game, and your products are destined to become commodities — if they aren’t already.

What’s more, this focus on competitors creates an internal feedback loop that reinforces your team’s safe decision-making. “Brand X is making this new organic adaptogenic product, and consumers seem to be buying it, so maybe we should make one, too.” Competing on benefits is a race to the bottom, a race that only deep-pocketed multinationals and store brands that can leverage favorable placement and discounting can win.

It’s a vicious cycle: 

Don’t Stand Among; Stand Out

Let’s go back to the pop quiz at the start of this article. What if you could get some of that swagger? What if you could all but ignore what everyone else is doing, in full confidence that what YOU are doing is right? What if your brand wasn’t a copycat but a disruptor?

Category disruption takes a programmatic discipline focused on seeking out the emotional territory of who your consumers get to be when they are with your brand. It means planting your flag on a distinguishing point of view, one that your consumers embrace, join in, and talk about with their friends.

This might be a shocking position in the CPG world, but I’ll throw it out here anyway: Purchase is not the endgame. Repeat purchase is only marginally better (because your brand might still be winning on price). The real endgame is to create stark-raving fandom among consumers of your products. And the pathway to that is belonging. It takes more than attributes to create belonging. It takes a well-defined and articulated Capital-B Brand: The promise you make and the ways that you keep it.

It’s Not About Competition, It’s About Education

And it also takes education. As I wrote in my book on branding, Beloved & Dominant Brands you need to understand that the purpose of customer education is not to sell them stuff; it’s to create evangelists.

Yes, you need to educate consumers about your features and attributes in order to convince them to buy. And yes, you need to innovate because consumers have become wired to expect a constant stream of new and different choices. The challenge is to integrate product benefits into a story that emphasizes belonging and community.

Consumers need to understand your brand in the context of the real world. They want to know what problems your brand will solve, why you make your products, and where you stand on issues they care about. When people do buy into your mission and your vision of how you’re going to improve the world, they’ll buy your products — loyally, repeatedly, with open wallets.

As a marketer, you may think that consumers will naturally gravitate toward your brand. They won’t. At every touchpoint, you need to teach the consumer why your brand matters, what wrong it exists to remedy, how it will help enhance their life, how they’ll feel when they stands with you.

Of course, this assumes you and your leadership team have done the hard work of articulating your brand’s WHY. (If you haven’t done that yet, start learning here.)

A powerful WHY is future-proof. It’s the secret sauce that everyone else will try to figure out how to copy — and fail because they don’t have the ingredients. If your competitors could get inside your boardroom and see all the positioning work you’ve done on the brand, they’d be terrified.

What you’re going to make, what you stand for, how you talk to people, where you sell, what you believe – if any of it feels ho-hum or sounds just like everyone else in your space, you have an opportunity to level up, think bigger, and disrupt.

We’re here for the disruptors. If that’s your aspiration, let’s have a conversation.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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How to Make Retailers Love Your Food or Beverage Brand

I talk with food and beverage marketing leaders a lot about what it takes for consumers to fall in love with their brands. I write about the topic a lot, too.

But there’s another audience you need to woo … and they’re essentially the gatekeepers who grant access to your ultimate fan base. I’m talking about your brand’s retail partners. Specifically, category managers or buyers who choose which brands and products appear on their shelves. These relationships are essential to your business, present and future. And woe be unto the CMO or CGO who undervalues or overlooks these keepers of the shelf.

Perhaps your company has emphasized direct-to-consumer channels and wants to expand into brick-and-mortar. Or your sales team is getting some pushback in annual reviews with retail buyers who question the strength and performance of your brand. Or, worse, slowing velocity has put your products at risk of being discontinued by one of your outlets.

If you’re running into any of these challenges, it’s time to build or shore up relationships with your channel partners.

When Brands Overlook Retail Partners

The lousy retail partnerships we’ve helped our clients resolve typically occur under two scenarios.

First, the small passion brand that is still in First and Only mode. It has come out of the gate hot, with a unique product that’s attracted a legion of fans. Led by a charismatic founder, the darling brand is killing it at Whole Foods, and when it debuts at a trade show it stops traffic. It’s getting tons of likes and shares on social.

But this brand lives in a bubble, surrounded by a cohort of fans that don’t represent a broader consumer base. The founder-CEO is convinced that her product is the bomb and that if she loves it, everyone else will, too. She doesn’t value retail partners—and their input or feedback—because they just don’t get the brand. She’s happy to sell DTC, so she doesn’t have to deal with grocery category buyers. She doesn’t recognize that the cost of customer acquisition through DTC is significantly higher than at retail, where people are literally walking past the product every freaking day.

Second, the brand is mature and not a darling anymore. It’s reached 100M in sales but still struggles to be profitable. It’s gotten onto the shelf at Target—yay!—but then faded, gone on discount, and been discontinued. The brand has lost relevance. The CGO senses that retail relationships may be the issue, but isn’t sure why.

It’s Not a Sales Issue

Food or beverage brands that face challenges at retail often turn to their sales team to build better relationships with buyers. But this is not a sales problem. It’s a brand problem.

Understanding how to expand your audience without abandoning your die-hard fans is key to changing the conversation with category buyers who may be losing patience with your brand. These buyers are under enormous pressure to constantly elevate the performance of their departments or categories. They’re looking for winners, period.

Convince them that your offering isn’t just a set of features and benefits (which are easily copied—by the retailer’s own label—and ripe for discounting), but a purposeful brand that resonates powerfully with a rabid and growing audience. Deep relevance means you attract a loyal buyer who seeks out your products no matter what and is willing to pay a premium. Those are the kinds of shoppers the retailer hungers for.

Remember, too, that the category manager is armed to the teeth with data—probably more than your marketing team has. When you can demonstrate that your consumer syncs with theirs, you reframe the conversation.

While it’s tempting to deploy your most charismatic salesperson to woo the retail buyer, that may get the product on the shelf, but it won’t make up for poor performance. The retailer will gain the power to dictate terms and placement.

Instead, position yourself as a partner in their business. There’s no retailer on the planet with a block of shelf space just waiting for your product to show up. You have to have a story that convinces them why they should displace something else that’s already there for your new or existing offerings.

Show Retailers You Mean Business

So what does a retail buyer need to understand about your brand?

1) That you understand the consumer. You know who they are and who they aren’t, what they currently buy, how your offering sits adjacent to that, and what else is in their consideration set.

2) That they have your undivided attention. The Target buyer doesn’t want you to talk about your grocery business; the Costco rep doesn’t want you to talk about Target.

3) That you understand their world. They’re responsible for driving velocity and margin, and the extent to which you understand the expectations they’re facing will go a long way in establishing a collaborative relationship.

4) That you’re in it for the long haul. The buyer wants assurances that you’re sustainable enough to last and that their channel won’t become overlooked as your business grows.

5) That you’ve done your homework around supply chain and cost. You understand how the global economy works, and if one of your key ingredients comes from overseas, you have a plan for what to do if it becomes difficult or costly to obtain. If you have a supply chain breakage that forces you to discontinue some or all of your SKUs, a solid retail partnership ensures that you can return to the shelf when it’s resolved.

By leading with your capital-B Brand and a deep understanding of your current and potential audience, you’ll gain influence. You’ll build a partnership with retail decision-makers based on a goal of mutual success between equals. Rather than allowing the buyer to dictate terms and placement, you’ll bring to the table a plan that outlines how the audience shops their channel and how you can make the retailer more money. Your category review conversations will focus on new products, additional opportunities, and favored placement. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Need some guidance on making your retail relationships work better? We should talk about it.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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A Dramatic Sales Turnaround for a Heritage Brand

The State of the Brand

This heritage chocolate brand invented the sugar-free chocolate category during the 1980s with a product that tasted just like regular chocolate. Because it was marketed as a product for consumers with diabetes and other dietary concerns, it sold well but remained a niche product. As Russell Stover leveraged multi-decade distribution channels through mass-market food and drug chains, the brand built and led the sugar-free chocolate category.

That is, until a host of competitors, notably Hershey, started flooding the market and sent Russell Stover Sugar Free into a three-year sales decline. They came to us under threat from competitors and retail partners who were moving to reallocate their shelf space.

How We Helped

When the brand team came to us for help repositioning Russell Stover Sugar Free, our 360° Brand Development process revealed two opportunities: an untapped audience and a packaging positioning reset.

First, there was an emerging class of consumers looking to reduce sugar intake for all kinds of wellness and lifestyle reasons. Russell Stover Sugar Free wasn’t in their consideration set, and no other brands were meeting their needs, either. These consumers were seeking natural products; sugar alcohol substitutes weren’t cutting it.

We advised altering their ingredient deck by swapping natural stevia for sucralose. In research, consumers told us they’d rather reduce their chocolate intake than eat a product with artificial ingredients. An extensive testing and formulation process landed on a product that looked and tasted indulgent.

Second, the consumer insights we unearthed during our 360° Brand Development showed that the original packaging and positioning, as a diabetic-friendly product, signaled “diet” and deprivation. When it was launched, the predominantly green packaging played in the same category as other “diet” foods like SnackWell’s and Healthy Choice.

But for the broader market of chocolate lovers (which is pretty much everybody), the old packaging looked more like a lousy alternative than a treat. Our packaging renovation leaned heavily into the nostalgia that comes with the Russell Stover master brand and the company’s legacy of chocolate making. Copy highlighted that the product is made in small batches by chocolate artisans, just as it’s always been. Updated messaging centered around the emotional and celebratory occasions when people gift and enjoy chocolates — not around the sugar-free-ness.

By combining a new ingredient profile that appealed to a natural-oriented consumer with the brand’s emotional legacy, we created an unmatchable position of differentiation.

The Results 

Talk about a turnaround. Per their annual report, Russell Stover Sugar Free reversed its precipitous sales decline in just six months, producing 33% growth over that period. And they were able to stave off Hershey, which threw three brands at their sugar-free initiative. Channel partners, including their biggest outlet, Walmart, were energized by the brand’s evolution; the new products flew off shelves. Russell Stover Sugar Free pirouetted to become the category leader again, ranking #1 in dollar and product volume, #1 in repeat customers, and a host of other metrics.

If this kind of brand acceleration appeals to you, let’s talk about what we can do for your business.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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How Food & Beverage Brands Can Stave Off Private Label Competitors

Those of us of a certain age remember the Cost Cutter brand. 

We’ve come a long way since those “off-brand” or generic products, infamous for cheap prices matched by poor quality.

Private label brands are vastly different today. And they’re aiming to eat your lunch — unless you can beat them on relevance, innovation, and engagement.

Not Your Parents’ Store Brands

Back in the day, generics were all about super-low cost. But over the past decade or two, that marketplace has shifted. Major retailers like Kroger (and the chains it has acquired) began offering store-branded products that improved on the generics. These house brands were all about reasonable facsimiles – incrementally less expensive for the illusion of a parity product. Retailers took a path of least resistance by co-manufacturing decent-enough items, designing decent-enough packaging, and shelving them alongside national brands. And consumers believed they were getting a decent-enough product for less money.

But, wow: Store brands today, which the industry calls “private label,” have upped the ante. Kroger’s Simple Truth lineup became the first billion-dollar store brand in less than two years after its 2012 launch. As of 2019, the portfolio included more than 1,550 organic and natural products. And then there’s Target, which holds nearly 50 “owned brands” ranging from low price to high style. Not to be left out, Amazon is growing its Amazon Basics and Happy Belly brands like bonkers. The category killer may be Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand, which in some cases is more expensive than competing national brands. Costco members know that Kirkland Signature products are premium and limited, so the brand creates a sense of FOMO that drives shoppers to buy.

The tough news for food and beverage brand marketers is that you’re competing not just against peer national/global brands, but against some really strong house brands from the very retailers you partner with.

Getting Ahead of Private Label Players

Private label incursion can frustrate the best CMOs in the business. Incremental moves by store brands can erode your market share and flatline your growth. And sometimes this happens imperceptibly, until one day the house brand looks like a legit competitor.

So how can you fend off these retail-owned challengers that seem to have every advantage — including deep consumer data, funding, and guaranteed shelf space?

It’s a question of playing big and pushing far enough ahead of  the category norms that consumers see you as the it brand. So let’s unpack how to do that.

1. Hit ‘em where they ain’t. (h/t to Bull Durham)

Use your super power: your mission, the good that connects your brand to a worthy cause, solves a wicked problem, or rights a known wrong. Private label brands don’t stand for anything; their strategy is just selling stuff.

Consumers align themselves with brands whose mission and values they share, and thus those brands become a form of self-identification or self-expression. When they choose your brand they get to be more healthy or earthy or whatever-y because your products enhance their lives. They’ll wear your merch and post your products on Instagram. They’ll create rituals around your products. But let’s face it: Nobody puts their Simple Truth dinner on Instagram even if it’s delicious. Nobody dunks their store-brand chocolate sandwich cookie like they dunk an Oreo.

Combine that mission with a well-defined audience — one that’s as broad as possible but not universal. Beloved and dominant brands know that they’re not for everyone. Gather a group of like-minded people who are comfortable standing apart from the rest of the world: the early adopters, life hackers, want-a-better-way-ers. The uptick of the bell curve before you hit mass adoption is the group you’re after. These passionate fans will never choose a private label option.

Private label brands are by necessity for everyone. Your brand shouldn’t be.

2. Play bigger and bolder.

How can you outpace private brands’ capacity to make stuff? Be committed to walking on a higher plane. Don’t just talk it, be it. Set the bar for whatever — clean ingredients or traceability or efficacy — and tie that to the mission your audience cares about. Then be the best: the cleanest ingredients, the most sustainably sourced, the most committed to social causes, etc.

And let’s talk about pricing. You and your brand team need to get over your premium phobia. Marketers fear premium pricing because they’re afraid of missing out on customers and of pricing their products out of the market. Retailers scare brands into managing price because they want competitive advantage for their private label items.

If you’re a brand that wants to sell as much as it can, then you have to play the price game. But if you stand for a higher cause, you actually don’t want everyone on the planet to buy your product. You need your fans to carry out your mission. It’s an ecosystem. Premium pricing signals that your brand is better than the rest of the set; it takes you out of product parity and into brand relevance.

3. Make communication and marketing decisions that private label can’t copy. 

House brands can mimic many of your brand’s attributes, including flavor profile, ingredients, even packaging style.

But they can’t replicate your relationship with your audience. So your goal is to get your consumers involved so that they become stark-raving fans of your brand.

To do this well, you need to think long-term about brand promise and how your team will deliver on it. And then you need to speak, write, and design like a brand that has no competition. Use your marketing and communications not just to promote product — but to drive ideas that transcend your offering. On social media, play not as a snack or nutrition brand, but as a lifestyle brand. Your brand has a distinctive voice; house brands can’t communicate like that.

It may be tempting to think of your private label competitors as gnats: annoying little buggers, but ultimately harmless. But you ignore them at your peril.

If you sense that they’re lurking outside your door, let’s connect. We can help leverage your strengths and steer your brand in a direction they can’t possibly follow.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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How to Focus Your Innovation Process for Truly Breakthrough Products

Innovation is the lifeblood of any food or beverage brand. A steady stream of new products keeps the brand relevant, dynamic, and profitable.

But great ideas aren’t enough. So how can your brand team transform possibilities into breakthrough, viable products that will drive preference, create significant barriers to entry to competitors, and hockey-stick your revenue?

You need a framework to set the stage for innovation in your organization, and the right people at the right time doing the right tasks. Here’s a better, smarter way to launch breakout new products.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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How Food & Beverage Brands Can Create a Focused Product Innovation Process

 “What else should we make?”

This may be the most frequently asked question we get from the better-for-you food and beverage brands we collaborate with. 

This question stems from a robust innovation pipeline that’s churning out lots of interesting options. (Less so from a lack of product ideas; more on that in a moment.)

Product development is one of two key ingredients in the recipe for growth for food and beverage brands:

  • Making more stuff
  • Selling it to more of the right people

And expanding your offering is especially important now, when consumers are open to trying new things, especially after more than a year of living with a stifling pandemic.

Given a robust R&D machine at your company, how do you prioritize all the new product ideas your team has? And how can you capitalize on those ideas to power growth for the brand? 

Our Product Innovation Filter, which you can download here for free, can help narrow your team’s list of big ideas to a tight selection of smart, actionable, and profitable new products. 

The Challenge of Innovation

Innovation is essential for new brands that need to develop a long-tail offering, and also for global companies with legacy brands. Because consumers and retailers are demanding better-for-you products made sustainably, multinationals are charged with creating brands and business units that will respond to these consumer preferences and grow as their legacy brands fall out of favor and lose traction.

In short, innovation is the lifeblood of an organization. Innovation increases share, helps you stay ahead of the competition, and keeps your business living and breathing.

While this brainstorming  work is fun and exciting, be careful not to  get swept up in the mad rush to market. Some brands come to us with a robust product lineup that they want to commercialize and launch right away. And we say, “Whoa, there!”

Focusing Your Innovation on Winners

Exciting though your products may be, you can’t — shouldn’t — make all of them, at least not all at once. Choosing which new offerings to advance is a strategic decision based on your brand — your promise and the way you deliver it. Innovation is not a blunt force; there should be a thin edge to the wedge.

Believe it or not, just five to seven new SKUs in a year is ideal. 

You may ask, why not dump everything on the market when you’re on an innovation roll? Well, if you come out with 478 new products at once, you’ll leave it to retailers to pick and choose what they want. It’s also frustrating for the sales team, because they can’t get enough traction with their retail partners if they offer too many options. Unless you own the category, retailers don’t have time for that. You also risk creating conflict internally among different teams that favor particular ideas. 

Too much of a good thing hampers your ability to gain the consumer’s attention because they’ll be confused about why they can’t get the same selection everywhere. And if your launch en masse includes products that aren’t quite on brand, consumers will begin to question what you stand for.

Two Keys for New Product Launches

We offer two primary suggestions to brands as they prioritize new products for launch: 

  1. Batch your innovations

 We recommend that brands batch five to seven products in a 12-month cycle over three to five years. It is a truly entrepreneurial approach, because it enables you to learn as you go. Maybe four of the five get great traction, the fifth thing transforms into something else, and one of the breakouts spins off additional new products. This test-and-learn mentality with a smaller group of new products manages risk, focuses your investment, and maximizes ROI. This strategy also fuels trust in your retail partners that you know your audience. They have an appetite for you to innovate, so by prioritizing new products you’ll have something to share with them at every category review. 

  1. Understand when the category is ripe for innovation 

Be able to distinguish when a category is ready for improvement and innovation and when it’s just not.  Here’s a great example: 25 years ago when I was working to define the Starbucks brand, I tasted mushroom coffee. Nobody was ready for mushroom coffee then. Today, the category is exploding with alternatives: reduced caffeine drinks, “stacked” coffee, and, yes, adaptogenic mushroom “coffee.” If you’d tried to innovate coffee like that 10 years ago, it would have flopped.

Again, look to the thin edge of the wedge. Search for opportunities to launch something new, at precisely the right moment, when consumers don’t yet know they need it (but you do). 

A (Re)Focused Innovation Process is Worth the Work

No matter your organization, brand innovation requires an entrepreneurial mindset. Would you rather sell a lot of small things to many people and be quickly forgotten? Or focus a few new products and sell the heck out of them and be knitted into your customers’ lives? 

A disciplined innovation process yields explosive business results. It guarantees you’re constantly introducing products that consumers want and need, which makes marketing easier and cheaper. It disrupts your category. You’re introducing something that’s truly new rather than iterating on products already in the market. It makes forecasting easier and more accurate, since new products are highly likely to win in the market. It allocates internal resources smartly. More to the point, it generates faster financial returns — because you will know who you are making products for and why.

If your brand’s challenge is not having too many product ideas but too few, we can help with that, as well. Let’s connect to discuss greasing your innovation machine.  And if your team is overwhelmed by all the possibilities and is struggling to prioritize them, download our Product Innovation Filter here. Then let’s have a conversation.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David